Police Reform Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Brooke: Having listened to all the debate, I do not understand why the additional powers in new clause 4 are needed. Like my colleagues, I think that a certain amount of local variation in policing is a good thing, as are local solutions to local problems.

Mr. Osborne: Does the hon. Lady think that we would have a greater understanding of why the Government want to introduce the clause if a Labour Back Bencher spoke on the subject?

Mrs. Brooke: I am sure that that would add to the interest of the debate.

Starting from the premise that local solutions are a good thing, I am perfectly content with the idea of a national strategic framework. I can understand the role of the centre in that respect. However, what concerns me is the feeling that I get from Labour Members who have spoken that there is something terribly bad somewhere, so bad that it is not specified. I am beginning to have an image of a monster lurking out there that is so bad that we need those excessive powers, even though existing powers have never been used.

We have had the idea of a spectrum rather than a bell shape, and the implication that some authorities are very good, but some are very bad indeed.

Column Number: 097

However, we are not sure about the scale on which they are really bad. That is what makes it so difficult to get a handle on the matter. We have all said that we want the best policing standards that we can possibly get; it is not a problem for us to work together to achieve that. With all the representations that we have had, I am convinced that working together, rather than an imposition from above, is the solution. We all know that trying to impose something is not the best way of getting results.

At the end of the day, there must be a good working relationship if we are all to achieve what we want. I should like to ask the Minister a small question. If there really is something so bad lurking, why is the only solution to give the Home Secretary more powers? Perhaps the police authority should be made more directly accountable to the electorate. If there was something dreadful out there, and I was suffering because of my police authority—although I would not, as I am sure that it does admirably on its resources, even though we certainly have a resource problem—there might be other ways of considering the matter.

I conclude by asking whether we should think about all dimensions of the tripartite system.

Ian Lucas: Does the hon. Lady support local political control of police forces?

Mrs. Brooke: I support the tripartite system; that is what we are all saying, and I do not think that I have deviated from that. However, at the moment, there is no direct link to the local police authority. I certainly think that it is important that local police authorities make decisions on our behalf. I am asking the Minister whether that might be another way round the problem that he is trying to address, although I do not know what it is because he has not told us or given us any evidence that the additional power is needed. That is the point to which we all keep coming back. The provision gives extreme power and centralisation, but is it needed, and if so, for what? Is that the only way to achieve the change that is perceived to be needed?

Mr. Denham: Let me deal with some of the issues that have been raised. The debate was wide-ranging—as is entirely in order, of course—in the sense that many of those contributing showed scant knowledge of the existing law and the powers of police authorities or Home Secretaries. That is quite apart from the conspiracy theories.

As I mentioned earlier, the Police Federation response to our White Paper, ''Policing a New Century: A Blueprint for Reform'', said, in relation to the proposed power:

    ''We believe that it is necessary for the Home Secretary to have this power''.

The Police Federation response was circulated to all Committee members in advance of this debate. It also said:

    ''In regard to the Secretary of State's powers to give directions to chief officers and directors general, we believe these should be tempered by a condition that the Secretary of State should only exercise such powers consequent to a recommendation by HMIC or the Police Standards Unit.''

That is in line with what I have said.

Mr. Paice rose—

Column Number: 098

Mr. Denham: I must finish the quote. It continues:

    ''These would then be a firm basis for the Secretary of State's intervention.''

As I have said, the Secretary of State would have to state clearly the reasons for his intervention. He would have to publish the basis for that, and therefore it would need to come, if not from the HMIC, from a body such as the police standards unit, which is capable of providing comparable evidence.

The hon. Member for Tatton asked me which organisation supports this clause; the Police Federation does. Also, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath misrepresented the national position of the Police Federation. Now that I have shown that there is support for this power, I am happy to give way.

Mr. Paice: The quotation that the Minister has read to us referred to ''a recommendation by'' the inspectorate or the standards unit. That does not tally with his earlier comments about the interpretation of those words, when he listed a raft of other reasons why they might interfere.

Mr. Denham: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the police standards unit does not have a legal basis. It is part of the Home Office, and I am sure that the Police Federation is aware of that and is therefore saying that there should be a solid basis for evidence, and that that could include evidence coming from a part of the Home Office.

The key test is the fact that the Home Secretary must make clear the evidence on which his intervention is based. That point must be reiterated because, unsurprisingly, some hon. Members who have contributed to this debate have consistently ignored that crucial test, which is a part of this clause.

Norman Baker: The Minister talked about the crucial test; his crucial test is as follows—if one bit of the Home Office, which is under ministerial control, recommends some action, that is sufficiently independent for the Home Secretary to take action himself.

Mr. Denham: One always knows when one is winning arguments. The hon. Gentleman knows that the test is not what the Home Secretary receives. It is the information that the Home Secretary has to make available, wherever he receives it from, in the first place to justify alerting police authorities or chief officers to the problem, and then to consider whether the response to that is adequate. Therefore, it is not the case that the Home Secretary can direct a police authority or a chief officer on the basis of having received some information from the Home Office. He has to justify that in an open way.

The fact that the hon. Gentleman has so often this afternoon had to distort both what the clause says and what we have said, in his pursuit of a political argument, shows the weakness of the positions that he has put forward.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Denham: No. I wish to make some progress.

The argument about variations that was put forward by the hon. Member for Lewes goes to the

Column Number: 099

crux of the debate. He argued that variations were merely the same as people speaking in different accents. He gave a number of reasons why there might be variations in performance, but at no point did he concede the possibility that the variation in police performance could be down to the quality of the policing itself. Yet the detection rate for burglary in two very similar areas can vary between 5.6 and 35.5 per cent.—to offer examples that were given in the White Paper.

The hon. Gentleman sought to trivialise those differences. The crucial difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we believe that members of the public who live in an area in which the detection rate is not just low, but low compared with the detection rate achieved by police forces in other areas, have a right to expect something to be done about it. The hon. Gentleman said that nothing should be done about it, except by people at local level and that, if people happen to be in a certain area, that is their bad luck. That is not the view taken by the Government.

Norman Baker: I have already accepted that the Home Secretary has powers under different legislation. So it is a gross distortion to say that I am suggesting that nothing can be done except at local level. The point that I was making was that not all local variations are wrong; they do not all have to be screened by the state.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friends will have noticed the significant change to the argument of half an hour ago.

Let me move on to the existing powers of intervention and the reasons why the new clause is justified. The powers of intervention under clause 40 are powers of direction to police authorities. Two issues are involved, which I do not wish to disguise from the Committee. First, we believe that those powers of direction have a breadth of test that has proven to be too broad. It is not possible to use them without the force as a whole failing in its efficiency or effectiveness. As we argued during our previous sitting, when justifying the redrafting of the clause, it may be possible that part of a force—perhaps a basic command unit or a particular function—is failing to be efficient and effective, while the force as a whole may not be failing. That is the first test.

Secondly, it is important to understand the limits of the powers of a police authority to take action in response to failure. As the tripartite structure has evolved, the police authority has limited powers in some areas. I know that no member of the Committee will rush out a press release because it is not the Government's fault, but the HMIC is producing a report tomorrow that does not give the best report that can be imagined on the way in which police forces have geared themselves up to make use of the substantial investment in DNA testing that has taken place. It is critical in several regards of the training of officers, the procedures, the investment at force level and so on. That measure of poor performance is not directed at individual forces, but at several. The problem needs to be addressed.

Column Number: 100

A police authority could reasonably discuss the problem with the chief constable. We may expect it to do so, but it is not possible under an existing power to require the chief constable to deal with it. If a force were failing to catch criminals or to reduce crime because it had no coherent strategy for identifying and dealing with persistent offenders, the police authority could discuss that with the chief officer, but could not require any action to be taken.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked whether the police authority should be given the power to direct the chief officer. For several years, it has been the traditional view of all parties that giving that power to police authorities, whether directly elected or indirectly constituted, would be a more significant break in the operational independence of chief officers and the relationship between the officers and police authorities than anything that is proposed under the Bill. We do not wish to take such a step. In the last resort, when it may be necessary to give directions to chief officers about such matters, that is something that the Home Secretary should do, be seen to be doing and be required to report to Parliament. That is why we have dealt with the matter.

There is a gap in the ability of not only the Home Secretary to give directions, but of police authorities to involve themselves directly in some of the areas in which persistent poor performance might take place. It is because of that problem that we have sought such a power. I accept that there is a legitimate debate on whether the Home Secretary should have the power, but we can put on one side the point that there is no credible argument for the Home Secretary taking it. Indeed, there is a sound argument, supported by reasons of openness and transparency, that if there are any circumstances in which there is a power to direct a chief officer, the Home Secretary should do that in an open and accountable way that is reported to Parliament rather than that power being used in myriad ways throughout 43 police authorities that would never be subject to such accountability. That is the Government's preference, and it is important to set that out for the Committee.

6.30 pm

Does that mean, however, that the police authority has had its powers undermined and been bypassed and kept out of the loop? No, it does not. As I said, we are discussing a power that is not available to a police authority. Nonetheless, we have inserted a significant series of measures in the new clause to ensure that the police authority is involved in the process rather than bypassed and left out of the loop. We always intended that police authorities should be part of the process because the White Paper—''Policing a New Century: A Blueprint for Reform''—said that a protocol would govern the use of the power. We put the elements of that protocol in the Bill in another place.

The new clause requires evidence that a force is failing to be put to the chief officer and the police authority. Both will be allowed to make representations to the Home Secretary to say either that the evidence is wrong or that the problem has been addressed. Before a chief officer submits an action plan to the Secretary of State, he must consult

Column Number: 101

the police authority on it. That is as much power as the police authority ever has on a plan of policing action taken by the chief officer so there is no diminution of the power of the police authority. Progress reports on the implementation of the action plan must be made to both the Secretary of State and the police authority. I do not believe that we are sidestepping the police authority because they will both be fully engaged if the powers are used.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 11 June 2002